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Unity, Purity, and Civility

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Pastoring Between Two Extremes?

Pastoring a church today is challenging on many fronts.  One of those fronts is navigating the biblical call for maintaining both unity and purity in the local and global church.  In this pursuit, a pastor may often feel like a pinball getting knocked around. Battles over purity and brawls for unity swap blows like two prizefighters using the pastor as the training bag. The pastor becomes a tightrope walker seeking to balance these realities. Yet purity and unity are actually complementary and should be kept in cooperation with one another.

This is where the work of Dr. Albert Mohler and Gavin Ortlund, with contributions from many others, can be incredibly informative and helpful.  Dr. Mohler coined the phrase, “theological triage”. This phrase is intended to clarify the posture by which we can pursue purity and unity as pastors leading our churches.  Triage means “to sort”. Mohler uses the analogy of a medical doctor evaluating the severity and urgency of a patient’s injuries to prioritize treatment order to illustrate.  Dr. Mohler asserts a similar approach to theological triage. In this Christians learn the discipline of determining “a scale of theological urgency” that consists of various levels (he suggests three) that correspond to issues and priorities of theology present in current doctrinal debates.[1]  Ortlund takes Mohler’s concept and further develops it. He provides insights from his own journey into theological triage and highlights helpful principles to guide the overall process.  Ortlund proposes four categories for prioritizing our theology.[2]  For both men, the point as it relates to the pastor who desires unity and purity is that not all Christian doctrines are created equal, nor should they possess equal weight. Christian doctrine is a mountain range with certain doctrines rising in elevation and priority, while other doctrines, though still important, reside in the valleys living in submission to the greater doctrines. We run into difficulty when we treat our doctrines as a flat plain in which all doctrines live at the same elevation sharing an equal priority. Instead, we must accurately prioritize our beliefs so that we may experience the beauty and benefit of living as the church unified and pure.

  Lessons from Those Who went Before

Church history provides many examples of believers doing this well and not so well.  One example that serves us well is the lengthy process the church navigated in recognizing the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as the divinely inspired authoritative Word of God.  Throughout this process, we find a blend of the desire for unity and the pursuit of purity.

Approximately three hundred years passed between the death of the last Apostle and the formal recognition of the collection of writings that guide the practices and expansion of the Christian faith.  From local church to local church there was both similarity and disparity regarding which of the roughly 125 books in circulation should be read when the church gathered for worship.  This put churches in a vulnerable position. Errors could creep in and pollute local fellowships.  Just such a scenario appears to be what launched the Church on the pursuit of recognizing a formal list of writings for guiding the Church.

Near the end of the second century, two individuals stepped on the scene presenting some unique perspectives about what should and should not be considered God’s revelation to humanity.  Marcion was convinced the god presented in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) could not possibly be the same god presented in the gospels and the writings of the Apostles.  Therefore, he proposed a complete removal of the Old Testament for use in local churches.  As far as the writings of the Apostles were concerned, he promoted only Luke’s gospel and eleven of Paul’s writings.  Montanus was far more inclusive.  He believed that he and a few of his followers had been given the gift of ongoing revelation by which their words should be added to the authoritative writings for the church.

The response of the Church displays a desire for purity. They declared both Marcion and Montanus as promoting and teaching aberrant beliefs that threatened Christians. These men were leading people astray with their false teaching and beliefs.  In the end, the Church declared them heretics, seeking to preserve the purity of the Christian church.  At the same time, the actions of these two men drove church leaders to recognize the need for an actual accurate list of the writings that were true, authentic, and useful for Christians to read. This pursuit shows the desire for Christian unity.[3]  The Muratorian Canon, our earliest Christian effort at listing Christian Scriptures (c.175) appears to be the first response to Marcion and Montanus.  Several other lists followed in the third and fourth centuries. This process of pursuing unity concluded with the first listing of the current twenty-seven books. Athanasius, in his letter declaring the date of Easter in 367, provides this complete list.  In the letter, he lists all 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament.  He acknowledges that this process had been passed on to him by others who encouraged him to carry on.  He writes, “it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine…In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.”[4]

Athanasius’ comments reflect a pursuit of unity and purity among Church leaders. The process was formalized and finalized at the Council of Carthage (393) and the Council of Hippo (397). It was at these Councils that Church leaders from across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East joined together to affirm twenty-seven books as the true, authentic, and useful books of the New Testament.

This is a beautiful picture of how churches and leaders can work together to preserve the purity and unity of the church.  Their conviction is a hopeful model for succeeding generations. Each generation of faithful leaders passed on their pursuit of unity and purity in hopes that the next generation would build upon the foundation until the entire process was brought to completion. That is exactly what happened.  Though not a perfect process it does give us hope and a model to learn from and build upon.

A Forgotten Virtue

As we seek to build upon and honor the legacy of the saints who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1), one of the keys is to revive a concept that has fallen out of favor in our culture and among many within our congregations.  It is the idea of civility.  Merriam-Webster defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.[5]  If we are to navigate the pursuit of purity and unity biblically with those who believe differently than us on issues not essential to the gospel itself, within and between our local churches, then we must familiarize ourselves with an approach to unity and purity that adopts the importance of civility.  We live in an age of extremes. Our human interactions are not exempt. The automatic response of many when someone disagrees with our position is shutting out and shutting off.  We’ve labeled this “cancel culture” in which there is no time, space, or tolerance for dialogue about differing views.[6]  This forces uniformity instead of unity.  Sadly, this is slinking its way into our churches.  Another deeply ingrained cultural belief is captured in the phrase “love is love”.  This love takes whomever and whatever as they are with no regard for reality or truth.  This posture flies in the face of purity at the expense of going along to get along.  Sadly, this too is wriggling its way into our churches.

The Beauty and the Benefit

As pastors, pursuing civility in the face of both extremes brings out the beauty and the benefit of unity and purity in an unbroken relationship.  No matter the degree to which we disagree with someone, a respectful conversation can help us see things in a different light. It encourages us to affirm the reality that every human being is an image-bearer of God. As a result, they are to be treated with dignity and honor. These originate from our Creator, whether we acknowledge the Creator or not.  For those of us in the church who acknowledge and esteem the Creator, the responsibility to be civil with other human beings is non-optional.  Leading through the challenge of preserving and promoting the unity and the purity of the church will continue to demand the pastor’s attention.  Purity and unity should exist together in every church and Christian.  Pastors who cultivate civility will nourish the soil of their congregations to enjoy this biblically beautiful blend.

Bibliography

Athanasius, St. n.d. “From Letter 39.” New Advent. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://ww.newadvent.org/fathers/2806039.htm.

Greenspan, Rachel E. 2020. “”How ‘cancel culture’ quickly became one of the buzziest and most controversial ideas on the internet.”.” Insider. August 6. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://www.insider.com/cancel-culture-meaning-history-origin-phrase-used-negatively-2020-7.

Jr., Dr. R. Albert Mohler. 2005. “”A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”.” Albert Mohler. July 12. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity.

Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “civility,” accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civility.

Nickens, Mark. 2020. A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.

Ortlund, Gavin. 2020. Finding the Right HIlls to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Wheaton: Crossway.


[1] (Jr. 2005)

[2] (Ortlund 2020)

[3] (Nickens 2020)

[4] (Athanasius n.d.)

[5] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “civility,” accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civility.

[6] (Greenspan 2020)

This article originally appeared here.

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The most important information about me is that I am a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. I’m not as passionate about it as I would like to be and I certainly stumble following Jesus far more than I’d like to admit. But the driving desire of my heart is that I would live a life so zeroed in on pursuing Jesus Christ that it inspires a passion in those around me to know and imitate Jesus Christ in a far greater way than even I am.